The the fact did the commander realize that the

role of heuristics /cognitive illusions in decision making

In psychology, heuristics
are simple, efficient rules, learned or hard-coded by evolutionary processes,
that have been proposed to explain how people make decisions, come to
judgements, and solve problems typically when facing complex problems or
incomplete information.

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 I have chosen two research papers for this
assignment, “Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” by Amos
Tversky and Daniel Kahneman published in the year 1974 and “Biases and
Heuristics in Decision Making and Their Impact on Autonomy” by J.S.
Blumenthal-Barby published in 2016.

The former research
paper by Tversky and Kahneman broadly talks about 3 major heuristics (namely
availability, representativeness and adjustment and anchoring) and their
application in our life which are as follows:-

Representativeness Heuristics:

Representativeness is
defined as a decision making shortcut that employs the use of past experiences
to guide the decision making process. The word ‘representativeness’ is in
reference to the notion that when we are confronted with a new experience and
need to make a judgement or decision about that situation, our brains
automatically rely on past experiences and mental representations seemingly
similar to this new situation in an effort to guide our judgements and
decisions. It can be useful when trying to make a quick decision but it can
also be limiting because it leads to close-mindedness such as in stereotypes.
There are several types of representative heuristics, including the Gambler’s
Fallacy, The illusion of validity, Insensitivity to prior probability of
outcomes, Insensitivity to sample size, Misconceptions of chance, and
Misconceptions of regression (htt1).

Here is an example to
illustrate the advantage of representativeness. A team of fire-fighters entered
a house in which the kitchen was on fire. Soon after they started hosing down
the kitchen, the commander heard himself shout, “Let’s get out of here!”
without realizing why. The floor collapsed almost immediately after the fire-fighters
escaped. Only after the fact did the commander realize that the fire had been
unusually quiet and that his ears had been unusually hot. Together, these
impressions prompted what he called a “sixth sense of danger.” He had no idea
what was wrong, but he knew something was wrong. It turned out the heart of the
fire had not been in the kitchen but in the basement beneath where the men had
stood (Kahneman, 2011). Had the commander
not taken that snap decision and instead tried to analyse the whole situation
critically at that moment he probably wouldn’t be alive to share this

representativeness helps in making snap judgements and thereby saving time we
have got many disadvantages of representativeness as well. It makes us close
minded and prone to stereotypes, a lot of times all this happens in the back of
our mind in the absence of our conscious awareness. For example consider an
individual who has been described by a former neighbour as follows: “Steve is
very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful, but with little interest in people,
or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and
structure, and a passion for detail.” How do people assess the probability that
Steve is engaged in a particular occupation from a list of possibilities (for
example, farmer, salesman, airline pilot, librarian, or physician)? In the
representativeness heuristic, the probability that Steve is a librarian, for
example, is assessed by the degree to which he is representative of, or similar
to, the stereotype of a librarian. Indeed, research with problems of this type
has shown that people order the occupations by probability and by similarity in
exactly the same way (Kahneman A. T., 1974).

For another example
consider tosses of a coin for heads or tails, people regard the sequence
H-T-H-T-T-H to be more likely than the sequence H-H-H-T-T-T, which does not
appear random. People expect that a sequence of events generated by a random
process will represent the essential characteristics of that process even when
the sequence is short (Kahneman A. T., 1974).

Availability Heuristics:

There are some situations
in which people assess the frequency of a class or the probability of an event
by the ease with which instances or occurrences can be brought to mind. When
the size of the class is judged by the availability of its instances, a class
whose instances are easily retrieved will appear more numerous than a class of
equal frequency whose instances are less retrievable. For example in an
elementary demonstration of this effect, subjects heard a list of well-known
personalities of both sexes and were subsequently asked to judge whether the
list contained more names of men than women. Different lists were presented to
different groups of subjects. In some of the lists the men were relatively more
famous than the women, and in others the women were relatively more famous than
the men. In each of the lists, the subjects erroneously judged that the class (sex)
that had the more famous personalities was the more numerous (Kahneman A.
T., 1974).
In this case the minds of the subjects grasped the pictures of famous
people more easily than those of regular people. At the time when they had to
retrieve this information from their memory, pictures of famous people were
easily retrieved and therefore they found those pictures to be more in number.

Adjustment and Anchoring Heuristics:

Adjustment and
anchoring is a psychological heuristic that influences the way people
intuitively assess probabilities. According to this heuristic, people start
with an implicitly suggested reference point (the “anchor”) and make
adjustments to it to reach their estimate. A person begins with a first
approximation (anchor) and then makes incremental adjustments based on
additional information. These adjustments are usually insufficient, giving the
initial anchor a great deal of influence over future assessments (Kahneman D. ,

For example some
participants were asked whether the percentage of African countries in the
United Nations is higher or lower than 10%. Their subsequent average estimate
of the actual percentage was 25%. Other participants were initially asked
whether the percentage of African countries in the United Nations is higher or
lower than 65%. Their average subsequent estimate was 45%. Thus, the initial
anchor value, even when its arbitrary nature was quite apparent, had a
pronounced effect on final judgements (Kahneman A. T., 1974).

Anchoring occurs not
only when the starting point is given to the subjects, but also when the
subject bases his estimate on the result of some incomplete computation. A
study of intuitive numerical estimation illustrates this effect. Two groups of
high school students estimated, within 5 seconds, a numerical expression that
was written on the blackboard. One group estimated the product 8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1
while another group estimated the product 1x2x3x4x5x6x7x8. Because the result
of the first few steps of multiplication is higher in the descending sequence
than in the ascending sequence, the former expression should be judged larger
than the latter. Both predictions were confirmed. The median estimate for the
ascending sequence, was 512, while the median estimate for the descending
sequence was 2,250. The correct answer is 40,320 (Kahneman A.
T., 1974).

J.S. Blumenthal-Barby
in her journal, “Biases and Heuristics in Decision Making and Their Impact on
Autonomy” talked about the impact of biases and heuristics on human
intentionality, understanding and effective autonomy. She said that there are
certain cognitive biases and heuristics that may diminish autonomous agency by
significantly distorting a person’s understanding of the nature of an action or
decision and the foreseeable consequences. One such example is the optimism
bias. In one study, researchers found a systematic optimism bias in response to
threatening health information: Individuals who received the most undesirable
test results were most likely to remember their cholesterol scores and
cardiovascular risk categories as lower (i.e., healthier) than those actually
received (Blumenthal-Barby, 2016). Biases can also
have an impact on controlling or alienating influence on people. For example a
patient who is about to have a heart surgery is told that he has 10% mortality
rate and in another similar case where the patient is told that he has 90% survival
rate. There is no doubt about in which case the patient will feel more

Apart from
understanding and intention, heuristics also have a great impact on autonomy.
Sunk-cost bias which is the tendency to continue an activity just because you
have already sunk so much time in it, is the reason why so many people
unwillingly do activities that they are not even interested in. This is how
these heuristics restrict our autonomy (Blumenthal-Barby, 2016).

In conclusion I would
like to say that heuristics are of both advantage and disadvantage to us. They
make us close-minded and create misunderstanding but at the same time they have
evolutionary reasons for their existence. They help us make quick decisions at
crucial times which is needed at various places by various people like fire-fighters,
coast guards, etc. A better understanding of these heuristics and of the biases
to which they lead could improve judgements and decisions in situations of
uncertainty in our lives.